I-TEAM investigates crisis at Alameda County health center

OAKLAND, Calif. (KGO) -- Employees at an Alameda County health center have come to the ABC7 News I-Team for help. The clinic is in crisis, with the federal government threatening to pull millions of dollars in funding because of long-running problems.

This clinic treats people who would not have health care otherwise. Because of problems there, the number of patients has plummeted in the past few years from 20,000 to about 5,000. And if changes aren't made fast, the doors could close forever.

The West Oakland Health Council runs seven sites in Oakland, Emeryville and Berkeley, providing primary health care -- OB/GYN, dental, radiology and pediatrics -- as well as substance abuse and mental health counseling, adult day care and more.

Alex Briscoe, Director of Alameda County Health Care Services Agency tells Dan Noyes, "It's been an essential part of the Alameda County safety net and one of the pioneering providers at providing culturally relevant care to the African-American community."

It's also serving an increasing Latino population. West Oakland Health is funded by Alameda County, Medicare, Medicaid and grants from the federal government -- your tax dollars. But, there is a problem.

Lloyd Ware, WOHC Board President, told a packed board meeting, "The issue right now is, there is a crisis."

The employees are so concerned about mismanagement and deficiencies in care that they post signs at board meetings, asking "What's going on? We want to know" and "Save this clinic." And patients come, worried about the future.

"What's going to happen with me and my family?" patient Tyrone Hall asked. "How can I now expect it or have any kind of medical resources?"

The SEIU/UHW Coordinator, Max Arias, asked the health center board, "Are you working and trying to correct the deficiencies that have been identified by HRSA?"

HRSA, the federal Health Resources and Services Administration, has provided $23,858,676 to West Oakland Health since 2008.

But, for the past few years, HRSA auditors have found repeated problems. In the last site visit, West Oakland did not meet 15 of 19 program requirements, including "accessible hours of operation/location," "quality improvement/assurance plan," "financial management and control policies," "billing and collections," and "program data reporting systems."

HRSA announced they would stop funding the health center at the end of this month, then decided to give the clinic one more year.

"This action that HRSA threatened and took us right at the edge of taking is very rare. As far as we know, it happened only one other time," Briscoe said.

The man who has run West Oakland Health Council for the past four decades tells me, he doesn't like being told what to do. WOHC Executive Director Dr. Robert Cooper, 80, has publicly blamed HRSA for the center's problems.

At a board meeting in December, Cooper said, "Mistakes were made, but not necessarily by us, but mistakes were made by the oversight."

HRSA concluded the health center lacks key staff -- no chief financial officer or chief operating officer. And Cooper serves as both executive director and medical director. Auditors say that "decreases both the time and current expertise necessary for providing medical leadership for the clinical staff." They recommend hiring a new practicing physician.

Noyes: "Can you answer the question? Are you going to hire a second person?"
Cooper: "I did answer the question."
Noyes: "To fill the medical director's position? It's a yes or no. Are you going to do that?"
Cooper: "I answered the question, it's uncertain whether I will or not."

Faced with so many problems, members of the center's executive board tried to place Cooper on paid administrative leave so they can "resolve the numerous and long-standing operational and financial deficiencies" and "determine a proper succession plan."

At the next meeting, the board members who led the charge were removed. One of them believes Dr. Cooper was behind the power play.

Rev. Thomas Harris, former WOHC board member, told Dan Noyes, "This is no personal thing against Dr. Cooper, I just think there's a time when you're no longer effective."

When asked what keeps him coming back every day, Cooper answered, "Well, we do what we enjoy doing. I enjoy working, and so I work."

The head of Alameda County Health Care Services tells the I-Team that Cooper knows he has to retire soon and that the doctor and his staff were unprepared to meet the new demands -- and the new opportunities -- that came with health care reform.

"West Oakland has been in a very important position to expand access to primary care, and during that moment unfortunately, fewer and fewer patients have been seen," said Briscoe.

Cooper claims the number of patients has plummeted because of a transition to electronic record keeping. The doctor tells the I-Team that he will be there to get the center in order before he passes the reins to someone else.

"Are we imperfect? Certainly. Will we be imperfect? Certainly. Are we better than we were in the past? Yes," Cooper said.

Hopefully, Cooper can turn the center around before HRSA pulls its funding. This year, the total is about $3.4 million.

You can read the entire latest site visit report here.
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